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Two Guardian Angels

It feels like a toothache.  I cautiously touch the spot to see if the pain is still there.  Then I withdraw my tongue, because I don’t want to give myself any more pain.  This is how it feels when I think about the loss of my mother.
     I always feared her death and being alone. But I didn’t realize Mom would unexpectedly leave behind a guardian angel named Sita, my hearing dog.
     My mother and I were extremely close.  She proudly told everyone we met that I was not only her daughter, but also her “best friend.”  My siblings live out of state and I am single, never married with no children.  My father died several years ago and my two siblings both lived out of state.  My mother and I relied on each other for support through good times and bad.  She lived next door to me for 6 years after my father was placed in a nursing home. She later moved to assisted living and finally to a nursing home.  My biggest fear was losing her.  But Mom was in her nineties, and I knew the time was close.  I’m blessed to have wonderful friends and
co workers, but no one would ever care for me or need me like Mom did.
     Mom was truly the most unselfish and loving person I’ve ever known.  All my friends loved her and called her Mom.  She adored her many “adopted” children.  Mom repeatedly expressed her wish for someone to care for me after her death.  Then in typical mom fashion, she took care of that worry in a very unique way.
     I have a severe hearing loss and have lived alone for 38 years.  Without my hearing aids, I am unable to hear the doorbell, telephone, or fire alarms.  For years, Mom had urged me to get a hearing dog.  I constantly postponed it with the usual excuses; “I am too busy,” or “Others need a dog more than I do.”  The catalyst for getting a dog occurred when a deaf friend was robbed and severely beaten. He couldn’t hear the criminal enter the house.
    A friend suggested I look at the website for Circletail.  I clicked on it and experienced a gut feeling of “This place is meant for me.”   I read about their unique program where dogs are rescued, then trained in prisons to become service dogs.  I am a rehabilitation counselor. My clients have shared with me the loneliness felt by being prisoners.
    One story jumped off the page at me.  The testimony was written by a prisoner about a particular dog he trained.  He explained that the bright eyed beauty “opened his hard heart,” and he hoped whoever received this wonderful creature would love the dog as much as he did.
     I contacted Circletail, completed a lot of paperwork, and passed a home visit.  I was informed the traditional waiting period for a dog is 12 – 18 months.
     The training that goes into these special assistance dogs is intense.  Circle Tail’s executive, Marlys Staley, started with a dream that turned into a wonderful reality.  Most of the dogs acquired are rescues. Many of them are saved from being put down in local pounds A few are donated by breeders.  The dogs are trained in four different prisons.  Why in prisons? Most people in everyday life are too busy working, going to school, and performing daily tasks to be involved with a dog 24/7. The chosen canines eat with the prisoners, go to the exercise yard and sleep in crates with them at night. 
     Gradually many of the dogs are weeded out from the program.  They are eliminated for reasons such as chasing a cat while in vest, or being too timid.  These dogs are eventually adopted by wise families that realize how well trained these wonderful creatures are.  Circletail arranges adoptions for over 250 dogs a year to good homes. 
    The unique dogs that are not afraid, very obedient, and have laid back personalities are taken to foster homes, where they are trained for specific tasks.  A dog that is helping a person in a wheelchair is taught to open doors and cabinets.  A hearing dog is trained to “bump” the owner if the phone rings or someone is at the door.
     Meanwhile, the owners are being carefully selected for the dogs.  Unknown to me, Circletail already had a trained dog that did not work well with another prospective client.  In my case, I was busy working with students and children.  It was obvious I needed a laid back dog that loved people.  Since this was my first experience with a dog, I also needed one that was flexible and easy to work with. 
    The director asked me to come to Circletail to visit.  I drove four hours to the facility and entered a large room.  I stepped inside the door in amazement, looking at 15 people working with dogs on leashes.  They were going around in a huge circle much like the obedience classes I have seen other places.  But this circle was different.  There were obstacle courses that the dogs had to maneuver.  They had to go through tunnels, walk on a thin rail, step on a swaying bridge and slide under bars.  A woman was in the center giving instructions to the owners, who then made certain the dogs could perform the commands.
     Marlys Staley, the director of the program, stood in the middle of the circle. She approached me and told me to join the others in the circle. My fascination with the obedience classes was forgotten when the foster mother placed a leash in my hand.
     I looked down at a slightly built yellow lab mix.  She stood tall and proud as she gazed at me.  An exquisite expression crossed her face as her brows furrowed.  She bore an expression of sweetness and softness that drew me to her.  Her face was not flattened like a typical lab, but was finely sculptured and dainty looking.
     Her nose wasn’t the typical black seen on most dogs, but a sunburned pinkish color.  Her fur was a light yellow, reminding me of rays of sunshine.  Her face was perfect except for one little mole on the side which added to her attractiveness. Instead of looking ugly, it gave her a signature look like a beauty star.
     The dog’s most compelling feature was her unusual deep eyes.  She looked like she had a soul.  When she gazed at me I was mesmerized.  The color was not quite brown or green, but brilliant amber and they swallowed me in her gaze. Our bonding started that day as I stared into her sweet face and expressive eyes. I was smitten. 
     Sita and I went around the obstacle course for over an hour.  She obeyed every command and was eager to please me.  Her quiet and calm personality was obvious.   I walked over to Marlys and said, “Sita is getting tired. And I am getting very attached to her.  Who does she belong to?”
     Marlys smiled and answered, “You, now.”
     Once the decision was made to match Sita and me, we needed to learn to work as a partnership.  I returned a month later for intense training with her. She stayed overnight with me at the hotel, and a trainer showed me what to do with her when I went to restaurants, grocery stores and public places.  I was given a list of over 50 commands she had learned.  The Americans with Disabilities Act was explained to me in case I was challenged about taking her somewhere she would not be allowed.  I read books and watched movies and learned more than I had in my doctoral program at college!
     I finally brought Sita home and took her to meet my mother. By this time, Mom was unable to take care of herself. She was living in an apartment in assisted living.  My astonishment at Sita’s sensitivity grew.   She had never met my mother. My mother was sitting in her chair with a large walker in front of her. Sita carefully went around the walker and kissed my mother on the face.  The next day she crawled under her walker and greeted her with her nose.  Sita knew instinctively that one false move could cause Mom to fall and was always careful.
     Sita and I went to visit my mother every day, and we took Mom out to eat at least 5 or 6 times a week.  Sita was always gentle and greeted Mom with a wagging tail and joyful kisses.  My mother had never allowed dogs in the house when we were growing up.  But the special relationship between Mom and my assistance dog was obvious to anyone who watched them.
The other residents and staff in the assisted living facility looked forward to Sita and her visits.
     Sita opened up so many doors for me. She forced me to go outdoors and enjoy nature with her. We went on “play dates” with other dogs and made wonderful new friends who were doggy lovers. In my private practice as a counselor, she comforted the hurting children, who had been abused and abandoned.
     One day I was attempting to console a client who was sobbing in my office.  Neither one of us were paying any attention to Sita, who was lying down under my desk.  To my utter astonishment, Sita got up, trotted over to my desk and pulled a tissue out of the box with her mouth and gave it to my client.  My client said “Sita, you made my day” and we both ended up laughing.  She was a therapy dog as well as a hearing dog and she accompanied me everywhere.  She taught me with her wonderful kisses and playful attitude to “seize the moment.”  
     I regaled Marlys and the people from Circle Tail with stories about this amazing dog.  I was  delighted when they finally told me the dog the prisoner talked about on the website that inspired him and opened his hard heart was my beloved Sita.  Sita with her gentle nature has influenced so many people in her journey.
    My mother became progressively weaker in the following year as she was hit first with pneumonia and then blood clots.  One evening she told me over and over again, “Sita is the best thing that ever happened to you.  She will take care of you after I am gone.  You are probably tired of hearing me say that.”
    I replied, “No, I’m not tired, because it is true.”  But my stomach constricted as I sensed the end was near for Mom.
     Two days later, I received a call from the nursing home.  Mom had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed.  When Sita and I entered her room she was conscious and in terrific pain.  I called relatives. A cousin came to be with me.  My mother showed her love to the end, being more worried that I was witnessing her pain than the fact she was suffering so much.
     I held Mom and told her I loved her as she drew her last breath and was finally at peace.  I pushed back my tears until she was gone, and then sobbed hysterically.  Sita sat faithfully by my side and never moved.
     When I entered the nursing home a few days later to pick up my mother’s belongings, a nurse took me aside.  She told me, “You did not see your dog because you were taking care of your mother.  I was watching the dog and when she died, that dog knew.  The saddest look came across that dog’s face.  I went home that night and told my husband – that dog knew.”
     Another astonishing event happened a couple of weeks later.  I went back to my mother’s apartment to pick up some things.  I turned and called Sita into Mom’s pretty living room.  She stood at the door and refused to enter.  She knew my mother was not there.  Instead, she lay down across the threshold of the door watching me and guarding me now that Mom was gone.
     I miss my mother dearly, and there is not a day I don’t think about her with love.  But I realized the cycle of life continued for me.  After my father died, my mother and I had each other.  After my Mother’s death, I had Sita.  What I didn’t expect was the outpouring of love and caring I received from many friends who have been there for me since my mother’s death.  I often fly with Sita to see my siblings and spend holidays with them.  My siblings, extended family and many wonderful friends have made sure that I never am really alone.
     A year after my Mother’s death, I was diagnosed with a serious and potentially fatal illness.  Sita was there when the doctor told me the average life span was a few years.  I was devastated and anxious. The next few months were very difficult, as I adjusted to doctor’s visits and chemo and tests that were all new to me.
     Sita’s personality began to change. Her tail wagged less often.  She refused to give kisses to me.  She became over protective.  One day I was with a friend, who is a master dog trainer.  Two dogs approached me and Sita snapped at them.
     I became distraught, because I was afraid of not being able to keep Sita.  No one is allowed to keep a dog that is aggressive. My friend explained, “Sita is picking up on all of your emotions.  You are upset and she senses it.  If you calm down, she will.”
     It hit me like a ton of bricks – of course this makes sense. I honestly have no control over what happens to me, except to take care of myself.  I can control my emotions.  I started to be calmer, and began to take every single moment as it came.  We only have today, yesterday is gone and tomorrow has not arrived.  Sita and I developed an ever stronger bond, as we enjoy every minute together.
          As I watch Sita at work and at play, I am enjoying life myself.  She has flown with me all over the country.  She plays every night with a neighbor dog, a black lab named Max.  To watch these two dogs play and enjoy every second without abandon brings me happiness that nothing else can. Sometimes I treat her to a special dish of ice cream and she licks every bite as if it is her last one.  She is smart enough to know all we ever have is the present and to cherish it.
    Sita has taught me “Carpe Diem” – to seize the day.  And truly that is the most important lesson of life.  Thank you my guardian angel and thank you Mom!

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